Reasoning For People in Process

The apologetical style I exhibited in recent sermons and developed in a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) is not designed to be aggressive. That is, my argument is not intended to close the sale with unbelievers, but to supply what is appropriate for a season. I think the stance of evangelists has been too rigid about procedure. There is a moment in which you become a Christian, the moment when you pray the sinner's prayer. When you pray the prayer you pass from darkness to light. The appeals of evangelists and the arguments of apologists have often been designed to drive a person to that moment.

Many Christians are rethinking this stance, wondering if important decisions are really settled by a single prayer. Two theological truths are relevant.

First, there is no middle ground between those who are in Christ and those who are not. The two heads of household in the world, Jesus and Satan, are at war, and a person is in one house or the other. "[The Father] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." (Colossians 1.13-14)

The purpose of the sinner's prayer, to articulate a moment of transfer, is important.

Still, secondly, the Bible prescribes no spiritual pitocin for inducing the new birth. The sinner's prayer is not found in any conversion in the New Testament. Baptism declares a faith that already exists, and is not a means of belonging to Christ. The gospels show many individuals engaging with Jesus in a process of transfer (e.g. John 3.1-21; 7.45-52; 19.38-42) that is slower than the moment of praying the prayer. This process is under the direct management of the Holy Spirit (John 16.7-11).

While there is nothing inherently wrong with the sinner's prayer, then, it is only one possible means of coming to Christ, and I know many people who have shown the fruits of the new birth without it. Biblically, the radical change that moves a person into Christ's household has a process behind it. The change does not occur in a moment, but perhaps may become apparent in a moment.

The aggressive style of apologetics that claims positively to prove Christ's claims, and to disprove competing claims, has been too focused on The Moment of conversion, and not focused enough on the process in which people find themselves dealing with Christ.

I am trying to develop a style to bring clarity to that process, a style that frames choices instead of driving points. It involves several assumptions about audience.

For starters, I assume that no one needs me to drive them to Christ. Christ is driving them to Himself through his Holy Spirit. If the Spirit is at work in a person, then I need to assume the honesty of the person's intentions. If the Spirit is not motivating the person, then no argument from heaven or earth will work.

In other words, I am talking to people who are well and rightly motivated in their decision-making. They will be moved by words that are in harmony with the Spirit's voice (1 Corinthians 2).

Furthermore, I accept that someone investigating Christ is uncertain. He or she is weighing claims, and is trying to find the best basis for deciding between them. That uncertainty is not a spiritual problem, but is, in fact, the Spirit's goad. The evangelist who tries to force certitude before the individual has genuinely found it is making the disastrous error of being disrespectful. In accepting people's uncertainties, I am not compromising with "relativism," but am recognizing that their questioning is what God will use to draw them to himself.

Where the Spirit is involved, a person's doubts are an ally, not an adversary.

Finally, I recognize that there are many factors involved in making life decisions, and each of these factors has to be treated with its own ethic.

Intellectual factors are significant in such decisions, and these must be addressed with rigor. But people also make spiritual decisions in response to pain. It is not appropriate to intellectualize someone's pain, as if suffering can be "answered." Even further, people make life decisions out of their sense of who they are: can they see themselves on a particular course with a particular group? Facts and logic often have little to do with this issue, since it turns more on culture and experience.

To treat all of these factors appropriately and biblically is to treat the process of conversion with the respect it deserves.

In other words, there is a time to reason, and a time to react; a time to think, and a time to feel. There is a time to analyze and a time to synthesize.

In the process of life-change, there is a season for every kind of word.

An Imam and His Abstract Comparisons

by Matthew Raley The generalization that all religions teach the same basic truths retains a powerful hold on the liberal imagination. It feeds the hope that the world can find peace through understanding, that if religions could realize how much ground they share, then people from different cultures could come together.

But this hope for a corporate final salvation leaves the individual human heart in despair.

Last Friday, On Faith in the Washington Post published comments by Feisal Abdul Rauf about President Barack Obama's upcoming trip to Turkey. He provides a specimen of how a hope for common ground devolves into an impersonal set of ethics.

Imam Rauf's examples of common ground between Islam and America are pretty abstract. Both cultures, it seems believe in law.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Creator endowed man with these unalienable rights. The framers of the Constitution wrote that they were establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty.

In the same way, Islamic law believes that God has ordained political justice, economic justice, help for the weak and impoverished. These are very Islamic concepts. Many Muslims believe that what Americans receive from their government is in fact the very substance of what an Islamic state should provide. American beliefs in individual liberty and the dignity of the individual are Islamic principles as well.

These comparisons are shockingly facile. Concepts of justice do not become anything more than slogans until they are instantiated by real cultural transactions. It is precisely the cultural specifics that drive the Muslim and American worlds apart.

The Imam becomes more specific when citing President Obama.

Obama sent a shockwave through the Muslim World when at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5 he quoted a hadith -- "None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." The president equated that tenet of Islam with Jesus' "Love thy neighbor as thyself," and the Jewish Torah commandment, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow."

There is indeed a broad and sometimes precise agreement about ethics among the world's religions and cultures. There is also agreement that the dynamics of right and wrong are built into the universe just as securely as its physical dynamics. C. S. Lewis, to name only the most prominent thinker, documented this agreement in his series of lectures, The Abolition of Man, in which he argued for the existence of a Tao, a moral law that is universal.

Imam Rauf and President Obama are correct when they find the golden rule articulated across cultural boundaries.

But their purpose goes beyond the diplomatic to embrace the liberal's final hope.

Christian liberals have long sought to reenergize ethics in the here-and-now, and deemphasize the "last things" of human history and eternal salvation. Or more precisely, they have adopted a new doctrine of the last things.

Here is the ultimate End, articulated by the Imam. President Obama

can emphasize the commonality of Western and Islamic values. He can say that if the United States lives up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and if Muslims can live up to the principles of Islamic law, then we will find we have fewer points of conflict and more common ground.

Once this commonality can be established, Muslims no longer will fear Western domination and the West no longer will fear Islamic expansion. Then, the phony "Clash of Civilizations" can be put to rest.

The liberal imagination, whether Christian or Muslim, sees world peace as the End of History, the ultimate goal of religion. Their path is to spotlight common ground and ease sharp differences into the shadows.

Where does this leave biblical Christianity?

The Jesus of the Gospel of John speaks to individual despair, the death and darkness of sin in each human soul. His cure for this despair is not an abstract system of ethics, which serves only to mark sin and not to redeem the sinner. His cure for darkness and death is his own historical death and resurrection.

The world will be reunified in Christ's household of the redeemed.

This is the preeminent difference Christianity has with other religions. To follow the vision of liberalism, we must silence Jesus' claims about individual redemption while keeping his ethics. The Imam can easily live with that. President Obama can easily live with it.

But the human soul, taunted by an abstract law it has never kept nor can keep, will remain dead.

Postmodern Skepticism and Apologetics

My college student friend is like many people today who form their beliefs with an almost total disregard for evidence. He is open to supernatural claims, but closed to logic-chopping. He's ready to believe in ancient traditions, finding them not merely interesting but enlightening, and discusses them alongside the latest in string theory. Christians today are conflicted about how to address this mentality. The apologetical mode for decades has been focused on proof, but the audience for proof is dwindling.

Should I try to persuade my friend that evidence matters? Or should I provide him with a plausible narrative for faith, excusing myself from the standards of intellectual rigor?

It may help to be more specific about the postmodern person's suspicion of evidence and logic.

I believe that the use of logic to build systems and discover truth is regarded by many today as a bluff, a game played by the erudite to intimidate the uninitiated. Evidence and logic matter, but an individual's relatively small knowledge base leaves him open to counterfeits. He feels that he can't untangle truth from falsehood because he lacks expertise.

I don't think the average person agrees with the anathemas against reason pronounced by academic postmodernism. Rather, like my student friend, he is suspicious of what he cannot personally verify.

In working to persuade people of this mentality to follow Christ, there are two issues to untangle.

1. To agree with much academic postmodernist thinking that reasoning is artificial and without significance is to undermine human thought and embrace nihilism.

A biblical thinker should recognize the law of non-contradiction as foundational to thought and communication. The classic arguments for the existence of God, for example, are founded on deductive reasoning from this law, and have never been refuted. We should not pretend that speculative logic is worthless.

But these arguments have been set aside, and for good reason, to wit ...

2. Audience does matter -- its capabilities, its knowledge base, its experiences.

The abstract reasoning of, say, the ontological argument for the existence of God has always been a matter for audiences with technical fluency. There are real problems in trying to popularize such an argument.

To begin with, for most people even to comprehend it would require lectures for which they have no interest,  patience, or, in particular, use. We can agree with Mortimer Adler that every person should be a philosopher while recognizing that few have been educated as he would have educated them.

A Christian apologist has to decide whether he is a philosophical educator or a preacher of the gospel. The two callings are jealous of devotion.

Another problem with popularization is that the smiling apologist who reduces a classic argument to its breeziest simplicity will puff an audience of Christians with overconfidence and self-satisfaction. Oversimplification is not part of a healthy spiritual diet.

So propriety in reasoning matters. But so does audience.

I believe that, in our context, the Christian apologist should employ logic defensively, not to attempt positive proofs of the faith but to refute competing claims. And he should reason about matters genuinely open to his audience's knowledge base.

In my current sermon series, then, I am taking on a proposition that is heard incessantly. The world's religions are merely different expressions of the same spiritual realities.

The average person in my church has heard this. His or her friends have said it over and over. So this proposition is within his or her knowledge base, something the person is competent to evaluate.

My argument establishes a fact. The world's religions are not different expressions of the same spiritual realities. They express different spiritual realities, and the differences are consequential.

In the sermons, I have used documentation from primary sources, and analysis of those teachings in comparison with John 10 to establish this fact. I have posed questions to my audience to drive home the contrasts, inviting their own investigations of other religions to test my statements.

The focus of this approach is narrow. I want to equip my audience to dispose of a flippant generalization. I also want my audience to evaluate the claims of Christ with greater specificity and rigor, regardless of whether they already claim to believe in Jesus.

Here's my bet: take away people's generalizations about Jesus and they will have to deal with what Jesus actually said. And if they deal with what he actually said, they will end up dealing with him.

This is a method that I believe maximizes what reason and evidence can accomplish, while speaking to issues that an audience is competent to assess.

Evidence From Christ's Own Voice

by Matthew Raley Let's step out of the mode of persuading skeptics for now, and think more specifically about the experience of conversion. We'll get back to the issues of persuasion next week. They're important. But I'm convinced we can't construct a sound apologetic for our Christian faith without understanding of what has happened to us.

Jesus is specific in John 10 about what moves people to follow him: recognition.

"The sheep hear [the Shepherd's] voice." (10.3) "[T]he sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow ... for they do not know the voice of strangers." (10.4-5) "I know my own and my own know me." (10.14) "And I have other sheep that are not of this fold ... and they will listen to my voice." (10.16) "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." (10.27)

Jesus is describing at least two things.

There is a quality in his voice that turns his sheep. The quality is personal, unique to Jesus, and it is communicable from him to his sheep. In other words, there are subjective characteristics inside Jesus (pardon the redundancy, but I'm emphatic about this point) that are expressed in his voice. His interior qualities constitute the object of the sheep's recognition.

I know him.

Further, there is something in his sheep that instinctively responds to his voice. Subjectively, each sheep recognizes the qualities of the Shepherd through the medium of his voice. This experience is, by definition, not something one person can share with another, but only describe.

So Jesus teaches that the decisive factor in conversion is an interaction. While the experience is subjective, Jesus clearly expects people to reflect on it. He describes, in other words, a reasoning process that accepts subjectivity as part of decision-making.

Last Sunday evening, as part of our church's discussion of the morning's sermon, I asked participants to tell me how they knew God was speaking to them. They described several characteristics, of which I give two:

1. Automatic change.

One woman said that after her conversion to Christ some of behaviors simply reversed. She no longer did the things she had desired in the past. It was a change she couldn't help noticing, but had never initiated.

2. A source of thoughts and motives other than self.

Several people described the experience of thinking, saying, or doing things that they could not attribute to themselves. The source, they said, had been Other. This is a different experience from an intuition or sub-rational process issuing in an action. A person can say, "I don't know why I did that," while still recognizing that the action came from him- or herself. But the participants described actions that they could not recognize as coming from themselves.

There were other characteristics, but these two illustrate that the people could describe a specific kind of experience.

Remember, we're out of the mode of persuading skeptics. We'll get back to it later.

Suppose we accepted this subjectivity as a legitimate part of spiritual decision-making. Is there a basis for reasoning about it? True, information from the two kinds of experiences above is fragile, and will only bear so much weight. The information is falsifiable, and is not open to objective proof. Even so, can we reason about this kind of subjectivity?

Consider two analogies.

The many indicators of falling in love are also fragile, also open to falsification, and all too frequently misunderstood. But romantic love is nevertheless a real experience.

A more fruitful comparison might be made with pain. Medicine does not have truly objective measures of pain, but tries to plumb the experience in search of diagnosis. The question What do you feel? is primary. Such information as location, kind, and scale of pain is limited by the patient's ability to communicate, verbally and physically. The information is indirect, fragile, and open to falsification.

But pain is real. Reflection and conversation about it can yield legitimate conclusions.

I believe our understanding of evangelism and apologetics should be revolutionized.

No one's decision-making process is purely objective. Decisions that mix objective and subjective priorities are the only decisions human beings are capable of making. So in evangelism, we shouldn't merely give evidence that points to Christ, urging people to make an inference that Christ's claims are true. Nor should we merely give evidence that proves competing claims false, hoping that people will convert to Christ by an analytical process of elimination.

Rather, the evangelist's goal should be to nurture an awareness of Christ's voice, the recognition of which is all the evidence people will need to follow him.

My Reluctance To Teach Apologetics

In my junior high years, I spent hours each week boning up on evidence that the Bible is historically accurate. I wore out Walter Martin tapes, marked up creationist books, and tried to turn conversations toward my findings. The most frequent response I got from non-Christians was no response. I was not saying anything that seriously challenged anyone's worldview. I was not provocative, as I had hoped to be. Nor was I even interesting.

My series on Jesus' truth claims in John 10 is a rare exercise for me in apologetics, the defense of Christian doctrine. We are contrasting Jesus' teachings with those of other religions, showing that the belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation is reasonable. Tagging along with this series, I'll devote a weekly post to some of the more technical issues.

As an opening question, why are my forays into apologetics so rare?

As a matter of theological principle, to begin with, I'm convinced that God's view of human life should not be defended, but asserted. The general tone of the Bible, whether history, epistle, or poetry, is declarative. The Lord spoke. The Lord acted. Heaven and earth obeyed. At some points in the Bible, human beings try to debate God (Job 38:1-42:6; Romans 9:14-21), but they are met with rebuke, not argumentation.

I favor this aggressive stance because God is the ultimate persuader of the human heart (1 Corinthians 2). My job as a preacher is assert his point of view and let his Spirit drive home the contrasts.

My reluctance to defend the Bible is founded on more than theological precept. I also have strategic doubts about the power of evidence-based arguments.

The accumulation of evidence to defend, say, the historicity of Noah's ark responds to modernist attacks according to modernist terms: the hard sciences define truth. In other fields of persuasion, like politics or law, each contender knows that he or she must set the terms of the debate in order to win. For Christians to have allowed modernists to frame spiritual questions in terms of human rationality has been to concede from the beginning that the Bible does not stand on its own. We have followed a losing strategy.

Human beings have to defend themselves according to God's terms, not the other way around. What possible confidence could I have in human justice?

Even further, I find logical problems with the evidence-based approach to apologetics, at least when its aims are confused.

The enterprise has been to confirm biblical veracity with independent data, say, from an archaeological dig. The prophet said this city would be swept into the sea, and lo, here are fibers from the very broom. But a conclusion heavier than the evidence will bear often gets dropped on the listener. Because we have the broom fibers, you should believe that the Bible is the true word of God.

In the first place, one would have to confirm every other detail in the Bible to reach that conclusion legitimately.

Additionally, and more importantly, the central assertion of Scripture is not that everything God says is true. The central assertion of Scripture is that "God spoke all these words." The reason to believe in the veracity of the Scriptures is that they were given by God. Even if one were able to find independent confirmation of every datum in the Bible, he still would not have proved that God is the Bible's source.

I rarely teach apologetics because the arguments are defensive. They can be legitimate, but are always limited. They can wear down an attacker and parry a blow, but they cannot convert the human soul.

Only a bold assertion of God's rights, without apology, can do that.